Violence, Visibility, and Victimhood
Two years after my attack, I see more of myself in my attacker than in the systems designed to punish him.
On this day two years ago,I was twenty years old, two weeks from graduating college, very anorexic, very blonde, and beaten up in broad daylight by a stranger outside of the library. It was fifty-two degrees outside and sunny. I ended up with bruising on my skin, muscles, and bones, and a very nasty concussion. Once the initial terror subsided, I was panicked with the thought that my concussion meant I would not be able to drink and revel with my peers in the days leading up to commencement.
I cried when I got back to my car. I cried twenty minutes later, pulled over into a parking lot, when I was halfway home. I cried when I got home. I never told my mother. I cried one more time, three days later, when I was brushing my hair and a strand of my attacker’s hair fell onto my pillowcase. I promptly washed my sheets with the hottest water the washing machine would allow and then washed them again and then dried them twice, double-checking that the lint trap was emptied so I wouldn’t set the old, yellow, wooden house on fire.
It was a strange event. I was wearing a vintage square dancing dress. It was the afternoon, a Saturday, and I was portaging Ryann’s camera and tripod in one hand and a tote bag (probably stolen by some ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend) in another. I smiled a half-smile at a woman sitting on her stoop, I looked at the empty school playground across the street--I thought it was funny that even the gentle weather and promise of swing sets and hopscotch was not enough to lure children back onto school grounds on a Saturday. I smiled a half-smile at a man a few steps down the road. I passed by him, or at least I tried to, and then I was on the ground, wrists pinned down, freshly-bleached hair on the asphalt. Of course, I screamed and I screamed and I screamed, or maybe I just thought I did, begging him not to hurt me, asking him what I did to deserve this, pleading with him to tell me what he wanted.
Moments or hours or days later, he stood up and offered his hand to help me up. And then he apologized.
He told me he thought my black metal tripod was a gun. I thought, why would I be carrying a gun out of the library? He told me he was very sorry. I thought, you can’t bring a gun into the library. They have metal detectors. He told me he thought I had a gun, and that he was very sorry, and that he didn’t mean to hurt me. I thought, this tripod is three feet long. Why would I be carrying a machine gun? That would be heavy. Probably too heavy to hold with one hand. He told me he had recently been released from prison, that it had really messed up his head, that he didn’t want to go back, that he was very sorry. I thought, why would I be carrying a gun out of the library? I asked if it was okay if I went home. He apologized again, said he didn’t want to go back to prison, and again I asked for permission to go home. He asked me not to call the cops, I said I wouldn’t, he asked me not to call the cops, I asked if I could go home. He said he was sorry, I said I wouldn’t call the cops. And then I said “I’m sorry. I’m going to go home now. I won’t call the cops. I’m sorry.”
The Troy Public Library is a beautiful building; the floor on the upper level is thick, frosted glass and the stair balusters are made of heavy iron. I don’t remember the man’s face, and I was embarrassed that I was coming off as rude when I was unable to make eye contact during our conversation. The memory is fuzzy and too-sharp at the same time, I felt my knees and elbows buzz and burn and while I can’t recall my attacker’s face I remember that there was a pink and orange glow in the background, a Dunkin Donuts at the end of the block, across the street and a bit to the right.
When I told the story to my friends and my professors--the concussion made it difficult to complete my final assignments--I always made sure to tell them I had been jumped. They would say, concerned, You were mugged? And I would say no, because when you get mugged you get robbed and I wasn’t robbed, just beat up, and thank goodness for that because I could not have afforded to replace the camera or my phone or my out-of-state drivers’ license.
I don’t like to use the word traumatic, because its usage is so omnipresent that it feels it has lost all meaning, but I suppose that’s the clinical term. It wasn’t the “most” traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me, probably because the seeming randomness of the attack lacked the sort of deep and existential weight of violence from people you know and trust, but the banality of it all was frightening in its own right. It was the afternoon, it was sunny, it was the fucking public library. There were people around, not huge crowds, but couples walking their dogs and the woman on her stoop, who did nothing except disappear. The feeling of total normality shattered at random is a panic perhaps plausible to anyone, but indescribable to those who have not experienced it firsthand.
I know the man who attacked me understood this feeling. He felt it himself when he saw me.
I don’t know him. Maybe he was lying to me, but I don’t think so, given that he could have stolen all of my things or kept beating me until I was too bruised to speak, but he didn’t.
Squirrelly is an adjective you don’t hear often. It’s one of the first words I’d use to describe myself. Nervous, erratic, glancing around a room wide-eyed, left leg always bouncing and always ready to dart out the door at the wrong sound or movement or nothing at all. Squirrelly is only a suffix away from my own last name, and perhaps I was fated from birth to be this way, either in last name or neurochemistry, possessing an obsessive-compulsive and mercurial nature that would leave me flitting between psychiatrists and therapists and psychologists and pharmacists and waiting rooms for the entirety of my adulthood. Sometimes I hide it well, sometimes I crumble and dissolve the way chunks of baking soda do when you pinch them between your fingertips. Almost exactly a year before my attack, three police officers arrived in my driveway a little before midnight, lights flashing and illuminating the cul-de-sac of shotgun houses. They wore their stab vests and those awful, ugly sports sunglasses and the youngest one stood in the front and kept his hand on his gun as he informed me they planned to put me in the back of their car and send me to the psychiatric hospital. I said I would not like to go. They said I had no choice in the matter.
When I think of my attacker and myself and my involuntary hospitalization, I think of two groups of people. There are the people that are scared and confused and full of feelings far too big from words and there are the people that say you need to come with me and people are concerned and think their monotonous voices give them the authority to tell you what to do and where to go.
I think of people who are nervous and afraid, people who are convinced of an imminent threat and acting in a way they believe is a rational response to that risk. I think of people with wide, nervous eyes, shifting weight between their legs, apologizing and talking in circles, mumbling or crying. Sometimes an alarm goes off in my head, telling me I need to look behind me, just to be sure I know what’s there, just to quell my anxieties. I whip my head around and scan the bus or the grocery store or the park, dart my eyes quickly, and return to my forward gaze. Inevitably, I think I have seen something out-of-place, something worrisome in a shadow or at the edge of the frame, so I count to ten so as not to seem panicked and turn my head around again, and inevitably upon second glance I can find no evidence of any cause for concern. But if I thought I saw something the first time and upon checking it was gone, that means my memory is fallible, which means if I thought I didn’t see anything the second time it’s entirely possible that was when my perception was wrong. I try to wait until the count of ten before my third over-the-shoulder glance but I can only make it to five before I check again. There’s nothing there.
I know I must look insane, always scanning, counting out loud as softly as I can. If I’m dressed well, with my hair brushed and my cologne emanating from my wrists and ankles, no one notices. But some days all showering means is seeing my own body, and stripping off some familiar layer of humanity and grime for a cleanliness is terrifying in its emptiness and inevitable violation. Getting dressed in proper clothes means deciding how I want people to look at me, which means remembering I have a body. When I am already feeling frenetic and self-conscious and squirrely I leave the house in the largest t-shirt I own, the smell of sweat and cheap men’s deodorant mixing as they waft off my body, I am wearing a tangled mess of damaged hair and a face of red rosacea bumps and a set of slimy and yellowed teeth where the bottom center-left tooth snaggles like an old tombstone. I check over my shoulder once, twice, three times and now people are staring, at least until I look at them, at which point they promptly avert their gazes. I want to tell them that I’m not crazy, just nervous sometimes, and that I’m not crazy, that there’s a logic to it all, you see because if I see something different the second time that means my memory is fallible, so it only makes sense to check again, so I’m not crazy, I just get nervous sometimes, and it’s actually quite funny because my last name is just a suffix away from the word squirrely, which isn’t an adjective you hear often, but does describe me quite well. But as much as I want to, I don’t say this or scream this because I know that the easiest way to get labeled insane is to tell people you are not insane. Unfortunately, the easiest way to feel insane is to know that other people think you are.
I worry that many people do not understand that strangers are real human beings. I think they know it intellectually, and they know that they should think it, and they especially know they have to say it. But I worry that people do not understand that the people they walk past or read about in the New York Post or watch on vertical iPhone videos are real people, people who can hear the blood pounding in their ears and people who can feel the weight of humidity when it hangs heavy in the air in August and people who know the strangely warm crawling of hunger when their stomachs are empty. I worry that many people don’t understand that others’ thoughts and feelings are loud and urgent and real, and that everyone’s rational needs and irrational thought patterns are filtered through an internal logic that makes perfect sense to whoever feels them. If you have needs or anxieties that go unaddressed, and then you are treated like you are crazy or insane for having needs and anxieties, you only feel crazier and more separate and more in need and more failed by the people around you. That’s the logical response.
I did not enjoy being beaten. I would not like to be beaten again, by a stranger or otherwise. I would rather the whole ordeal never happened. And I think there’s something very important to say about how women in particular are treated as crazy for being vigilant or afraid of very real, persistent threats of violence. But to treat the comfort of those in positions of material and psychological security above the physical safety of the mentally ill and formerly incarcerated and homeless is irresponsible at best and socially violent at worst. People who are angry at or confused by a world that will actively and continually de-stabilize your life and then criminalize you for being unstable are called crazy. When they ask for recognition they are ignored, when they scream for it they are jailed or beaten or killed.
When we call for sympathy and empowerment for those at the furthest margins of society, a chorus of voices will echo in response that a homeless person or a mentally ill person made them scared or uncomfortable. Do they consider the fear and discomfort the homeless and mentally ill face, including from them? Do they consider the fear of having the cops called on you, the discomfort of having your medical and psychological needs not met, the utter devastation of people refusing to look you in the eyes no matter what you do? This is not to say that verbal harassment is insignificant or unworth addressing, but instead to challenge the position of victimhood shouted by so many that is predicated on the immediate belief that their feelings are necessarily more important, or even real, than someone else’s. Would I have been just as likely to be beaten if my attacker was never incarcerated?
There are innumerable ways in which I am incredibly privileged, socially and personally, and I am beyond grateful for the support systems in my life. But I also know that there is a schism between those who have power, who dictate the limits of acceptable behavior and punish that which does not align, and those who must live as subjects of control even as they are driven further and further away from the center by the structures that subjugate them. I know that no matter how well I dress or how hard I suppress my most divergent behaviors, there will always be a part of myself that is socially undesirable and waiting to be punished. And I know that even if I did not possess these traits, those who live on the margins have feelings and needs for recognition and security and compassion just as I do, and that alone should be enough for the public to demand their support. Maybe, one day, it will be.
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Author’s note: the first essay I ever published on this blog was also about this moment in my life, specifically within the context of the tension between “women’s safety” and abolitionism. If you’d like to read it, you’ll find it here.
May 8, 2021, on the day of writing this piece.
Oh Charlie, this is a beautiful, beautiful, heartbreakingly honest piece. Especially the latter half had me all teary-eyed. On account of all the perpetually nervous and squirrelly girls out there, I thank you for allowing us to see ourselves reflected in your words. And once again one idea continues to ring true: In a system that relies on isolating individualism, the ultimate act of defiance must be to see humanity in others.
Wow ,this was amazingly written.Also carries an important message ,I wish everyone would read this.